LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.
Thousands of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina still cannot return home, but at least we are able to hear their voices.
Ms. GLORIA IRVING (New Orleans Resident): We want to come home. This is all I know is New Orleans. I do not like Texas. But I'm staying there because I don't have now where else to go.
INSKEEP: That's New Orleans resident Gloria Irving. In this next report, we will meet another class of victims who cannot tell their stories. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita pounded southern wetlands just as brutally as they struck southern cities, and NPR's John Burnett reports that they destroyed the homes of animals too.
JOHN BURNETT reporting:
Get a map of Louisiana. In the southwest part of the state, South of Lake Charles, find a coastal town of Holly Beach. With a pencil, draw a line 10 miles to the north; now scratch out Holly Beach. That's what Hurricane Rita did on September 24. It blew and washed the community into the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, 160 square mile expanse of marsh bordering Texas.
Refuge manager Terry Delane stops his airboat to survey the village detritus, seen and unseen.
Mr. TERRY DELANE (Refuge Manager): We're looking at a refrigerator in front of us here. And somewhere in the canal is where that tractor trailer rig is located. That's the only place in this marsh that you can sink something completely out of sight.
BURNETT: That's right, the tidal surge floated an 18-wheeler into the canal, where it sank into the primordial bog, along with great piles of uprooted marsh grass.
So what we're sitting on top of is tons of vegetation that's just cooking and decaying.
Ms. DIANE BORDEN-BILLIOT (Biologist): That is correct. We are just kind of in a nice, large cauldron of stew, nice marsh stew.
BURNETT: Diane Borden-Billiot is a biologist at the Refuge. Wearing U.S. fish and wildlife jacket, with orange painted fingernails, she sits in an airboat floating in the canal. If you just sit still, you can smell it real clearly, very - the white…
BURNETT: Very sulfurous.
Ms. BORDEN-BILLIOT: It's just kind of like rotten eggs, bad water in a water fountain, but just 10, 15 times that, just very pungent.
BURNETT: The hurricane redrew the map of this wetland. It plugged canals and open new lakes. And so it's understandable that the wild things that lived here are gone temporarily.
BURNETT: Is it normally this quiet?
Ms. BORDEN-BILLIOT: Not this quiet. If this were a nice, healthy marsh, this time of year you should hear a lot of birdlife, rails, occasional gators bellowing.
BURNETT: The humid air is nearly empty, save the mosquitoes that are as plentiful as dust motes and a garrulous shore bird, called a black-necked stilt. When she hears the stilt's call, Borden-Billiot flashes a smile to the airboat driver.
Ms. BORDEN-BILLIOT: When we came out here several months ago, you didn't hear a peep, not a bird, not an insect, nothing. So that is actually a great sign. I mean, that's life. That's something out here that's able to survive. They can fly in and out, pick up some food, maybe nest on top of a debris field. I mean, they're doing fine.
BURNETT: The storms were particularly hard on alligators. Locals say they seldom see the familiar snout and eyes poking out of the murky waters these days. There is one place though where there are still numerous.
Mr. KEVIN SAGRERA: My name is Kevin Sagrera. I live in Abbeville, Louisiana; part owner of Vermillion Gator Farms.
BURNETT: Rita inundated vermillion Gator Farms, washing away 3,000 squirming baby reptiles. Though the Sagrera family raises its own gators, the farm nevertheless, depends on natural habitat. They collect eggs from the wild, and in return release 14 percent of hatchlings back into the marsh.
Mr. SEGRERA: As far as what the future holds, we're really not certain. The salt water is all over the marsh now and the salinity levels are extremely high. We haven't had any - very little rain to come in and dilute that marsh. So what's happening is the gator can't take high salinity. So we're not sure what nesting is going to be this year.
BURNETT: A gator sanctuary this is not. On this day, more than a thousand animals will be slaughtered. In the skinning room, sturdy men in coveralls first inflate the four-foot long alligator carcasses like balloons.
Then the creatures are flayed on stainless steel tables anchored to a concrete floor, slick with gator blood. The tender tail meat is stripped out to be sold to restaurants. Then the hide is chilled, sterilized, inspected, packed and shipped to Singapore, where a company turns them into $200 watchbands.
A hunter himself, Cajun skinner Rick Veret knows the marsh is in distress, but he's confident it will heal itself.
Mr. RICK VERET (Alligator Skinner): Alligators are like Cajuns. They bounce back pretty quick. So hopefully in a couple of years we'll have it back.
BURNETT: Preliminary estimates show the twin typhoons destroyed as much as 200 square miles as wetlands; this in a state that can ill afford more deterioration. Louisiana was already losing an area the size of a football field to the gulf every 35 minutes.
But remember that hurricanes are part of the natural order, and their effect is not only destructive, says Guthrie Perry, longtime manager of the state-run Rockefeller Refuge.
Mr. GUTHRIE PERRY (Manager, Rockefeller Refuge, Louisiana): One thing the storm did do that was good is, some of these areas, marshes, had grown up and were completely covered and filled in. And waterfowl need a certain amount of pond area, and so the storm did kill some of the plants and open it back up.
BURNETT: What's more, sediment carried inland by the storm waters, added several inches of topsoil in places. And the hurricane tide brought a profusion of sea life farther inland.
Mr. PERRY: We're driving back towards the east end locks, and we're probably going to have some people back here that are crabbing or shrimping or fishing. I see a guy with a cast net there.
BURNETT: Perry gets out of his Suburban and walks onto the dock where Chris Venable(ph), a friendly truck mechanic from the town of Indian Bayou, is casting for shrimp with his 13-year-old son, Colby(ph).
Mr. CHRIS VENABLE (Louisiana Resident): I just started coming back since the storms, and everybody told me it was terrible. But these last three weeks, it's incredible. We're catching our limit every time we come out. Right there, that's where - look how big these shrimp are. It's humungous.
BURNETT: As for how the state's other favorite crustacean did, the crawfish, it depends on where you look. Along the Gulf, the storm surge swept 35 miles inland and ruined a quarter to a third of the state's crawfish crop. And the drought has prevented rain from flushing out the salt water. But if you were a craw fisherman outside the saline zone, you were lucky.
Mr. BURT TIETJE (Crawfish Farmer, Louisiana): I'm Burt Tietje. I'm a crawfish farmer in Roanoke, Louisiana. And I've had a very good year. Demand has been strong. There've been a lot of producers knocked out of, because of the storm, and I'm kind of like Forest Gump. I'm the last person, last man standing, and so I'm reaping the benefits of high demand and a plentiful product.
BURNETT: On this morning, Tietje steers his skiff up and down rows of crawfish traps on his 55 acre pond, located a mile north of Interstate 10. He's got company; a tawny mongrel pup, struggling to swim after the boat.
(Soundbite of puppy moaning)
Mr. TIETJE: What's wrong Skip? You should know better than to follow us out here.
BURNETT: It's tempting to attribute Burt Tietje's generous grin to the nearly doubling of prices he's getting for live crawfish this year, but there's more to this business than the bottom line.
Mr. TIETJE: Early morning in the crawfish pond, the temperature is cooler, the birds are waking up, and the ducks are flying. It's a very peaceful place.
BURNETT: Biologists are confident the wildlife will eventually return to the marshes and bayous of south Louisiana. Natives like Burt Tietje cannot imagine living anywhere else, either.
John Burnett, NPR News, New Orleans.